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Women’s Rights to Reproductive Healthcare: United States

Volume 823: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat an Answer to an Urgent Question in the other place given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia and the Middle East. The response is as follows:

“Access to abortion services in the United States is a matter for the US Supreme Court and for authorities in individual states. The US Supreme Court opinion of 24 June in the case of Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization does not make abortion illegal across America. Rather, it removes federal protection for abortions, hence allowing individual states to determine their own laws. Thirteen states have so-called ‘trigger laws’ that will automatically outlaw abortion; seven of these are already active. In total, we understand that 26 states are likely to ban or restrict abortion or have bans that predate Roe still technically on the books.

As the Prime Minister has said, this is not our court—it is another jurisdiction—but this is a big step backwards. I share his view. The United Kingdom’s position is that women and girls in the UK should have the right to access essential health services, including those relating to sexual and reproductive health, which includes safe abortion care. More broadly, the United Kingdom’s approach is to support sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion for women and girls around the world.”

I thank the Minister for repeating that response. In the other place, Amanda Milling highlighted the priority given to women and girls in the international development strategy, including the right to sexual and reproductive health. The judgment, as the Minister rightly says, is a matter for the US jurisdiction, but it will no doubt give oxygen to the evangelical right across all continents. So positive words will not be enough to protect a woman’s right to choose. Can the Minister highlight what we will do to support women, particularly civil society groups and other women’s groups, to ensure that their human right to choose abortion if they need it is protected? What will we do to support them?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord acknowledges that, over many years, the United Kingdom has taken a strong and principled position on this. Indeed, the noble Lord and I have had exchanges on this matter, and I am sure he recalls when challenges were posed in the United Nations Security Council, when a resolution was passed on conflict-related sexual violence with an omission on sexual and reproductive health. At that time—I was there—we used the explanation of vote as an opportunity to, once again, restate the very rights articulated by the noble Lord.

I do not think there is a difference of perspective here between the Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition, and it is important that we stand up for the right for women to have access in this way. As I have said before, what is happening in the United States is a matter for the United States, but the United Kingdom will retain its strong and principled stand in this respect.

My Lords, the United States and the United Kingdom are recognised as global leaders in maternal healthcare and fully inclusive reproductive rights. Last year, the Government cut their pledge to the UN Population Fund by 85%. Given that an incoming US Government might reinstate a global gag at any time, could this Government pledge to reinstate some of that funding?

Secondly, could we strike a completely different note—one that sympathises with, rather than criminalises, women in desperate need of fully inclusive reproductive healthcare—and decriminalise abortion in this country?

My Lords, the noble Baroness’s final point is of course very much a matter of discussion. Various initiatives and discussions are currently under way to ensure, as I have stated before, the ability of every woman who so chooses to have rights and access to such facilities. The noble Baroness rightly raised the issue of access to the UN initiative in this regard. I can confirm that we have already allocated £60 million. When my right honourable friend the current Foreign Secretary took over office, the reduced funding on women and girls was restored.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that it would be both illogical and embarrassing for the United Kingdom to make representations to the US on this issue? The US Supreme Court has simply returned the issue of the provision of abortion services to each state, leaving the decision in the hands of the democratically elected representatives of the people of each state. Is the Minister aware that there is no human right to abortion under either the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the European Convention on Human Rights, despite the regular but erroneous assertions that such a right exists? Is he also aware that the unborn child’s right to life is protected under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which we are a signatory?

My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness that I am aware of all the respective conventions. We have articulated the clear position that this is a matter for the United States, but equally I respect—as we are seeing today—that people will have different perspectives, insights and principled views on abortion. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has articulated where we are currently. I think that many across your Lordships’ House and the other place share his view but, equally, respect that others may have a different perspective.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer. I am sure that, having visited a whole range of countries across the world, he knows how important the work on reproductive rights with young women and girls is. I have been involved in working with young people from this country volunteering abroad with young people from their host country, doing some significant work. There is a real challenge now: because of the reduction in aid from this country, much of that work in some countries is now stopping. It is educational work around the health of women. Most of the young women I met never got to the abortion stage; they were working at a much earlier stage on their reproductive rights and sexual education. Will the Government have another look to make sure that our work and our reputation on this are not further undermined and can be restored at least to the levels at which they used to be?

My Lords, I believe I have already stated that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has prioritised spending on women and girls, including on sexual and reproductive rights. Indeed, it is an area we have focused on for a number for years. The majority of our SRHR programming focuses on increasing and improving voluntary planning information supplies and services. In 2019-20, the UK supported 25.4 million women and girls to use modern methods of contraception, including the sharing of information. With all these efforts, it is important that we continue to work and remain focused on what we seek to do. I fully recognise the important efforts and the work of the noble Baroness in this respect.

My Lords, just as the United Kingdom allows every part of the United Kingdom to make its decisions on abortion, surely the Minister must agree that the United States, a democracy, must be allowed to have its individual states, whatever we think of the issue. Does he agree with me that, just as many of us got quite annoyed at the United States interfering in our decisions over something such as the protocol, we should keep well out of this and Her Majesty’s Government should not get involved in the internal affairs of the United States?

The point made by the noble Baroness is exactly what I have articulated: we have made it clear that this is very much an issue for the United States. Of course, each state has its own elected representatives. It is for the people of those states to choose their democratically elected representatives.

My Lords, I am glad my noble friend has reiterated that point; it is an important one. There are many Christians in this country who are very troubled about the whole subject of abortion, and that should be borne in mind as well.

My Lords, I recognise what my noble friend has said. Any democratic country—any open society—gives everyone the right to express their view. What demonstrates the strength of our own country is that, while you might not respect a particular view, you respect and defend the right of someone to hold an opinion contrary to your own. We are a diverse, rich country in all sorts of aspects, including our faith diversity. We also recognise that America is a shining light and the closest ally of the United Kingdom. There is much that we share on strengthening democracy and human rights around the world; that will remain a strong sense in our focus globally as well.

Is not the lesson for this country from that decision that there should be absolutely no political involvement in the appointment of senior judges?

As the Minister has just come back from the Commonwealth conference, can he say a word about Africa and whether he thinks some of those states will be backtracking on this?

My Lords, one important thing about networks such as the Commonwealth is that they allow us to look at a broad range of human rights issues in a progressive and productive way. As the United Kingdom’s Human Rights Minister, the guiding principles that I apply in discussions are, first, to be constructive and, secondly, to recognise that many countries across the world, including those within the Commonwealth, are on a journey, specifically in relation to human rights; that may be on media freedom, religious freedom, LGBT rights or, indeed, women and girls.

I look back on our own history and see that we as a country travelled on this very path, sometimes with great difficulty and challenges, but we overcame them—through the strength of our democracy, the rights of representation, and an open but independent judiciary. These are experiences from our journey that we share across the world, and the principles that we involve and engage with in our discussions with our Commonwealth partners.